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Posted Date: 7/14/2009

Top, Bottom, Up, Down, Charm & Strange: The Art of Quantum Retailing

By Jordan K. Speer
Finding your company at or near the top of Apparel's annual list of the 50 most profitable public apparel companies is a great place to be in any year, and particularly in one such as this. A rising tide lifts all boats, we know. It's harder to succeed when the waters are stagnant.

Still, even in today's depressed economy, the majority of Top 50 companies are profitable, and some, incredibly so. What did those companies do differently? What is that x factor to success?

If I had all of the answers to those questions, I'd probably be in another line of work. But some of the answers are clear. It requires no speculation to conclude that new technologies, applied smartly, are providing great rewards to those who master them, in the form of greater efficiencies, improved products, fruitful collaboration - and time and money saved.

But that's just one part of the equation. Companies that sell products no one wants are not going to be successful, no matter how efficient their supply chains. That's where the ever-evolving  "science of retailing"  comes into play.

Companies have been studying the American consumer and the shopping experience for years, conducting increasingly sophisticated analyses of both along the way. The practice of prying into the minds and habits of consumers is now an industry unto itself. Information gathered at point-of-sale is fed into software systems that use advanced algorithms to pump out data that can be used for marketing promotions, for product development, for store allocations, for markdown optimization, and more.

In other ways of tracking consumer behavior, radio-frequency identification tags not only allow companies to track product through the supply chain, but when applied at the item-level, provide a way to trace the movement of products around a store. As far as monitoring the movements of consumers, store-traffic systems have that covered, providing body counts and  "heat maps"  of areas that draw the most feet.

There are telemarketers and online surveys and loyalty programs and consumer research groups and private shopping clubs. And from each, more personal data is collected and fed into the intelligence-gathering machine.

As a result, retailers know more than ever before about how shoppers behave, and it is no doubt helpful.

Yet as they slice and dice their customer profiles into smaller and smaller pieces, trying to reveal the essence of these individuals to figure out what makes them tick - what makes them buy - there is still always that sticking point, which is that shoppers are, in the end, human, and human behavior is unpredictable.

Top, bottom, up, down, charm and strange are words that could be used to describe the movement and placement, as well as some of the individual quirks, of the companies on this year's list of the Top 50 most profitable public apparel firms; they're also the names given to the six types of quarks - those sub-atomic particles found in protons and neutrons.

I wonder if, like string theory, which provides a single framework that encompasses all forces and all matter and solves the problem of incompatibility between quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, science will eventually bridge that gap to human behavior with a unified retail field theory that is able to capture perfectly both the  "particle"  of a person's current whims and desires with the  "wave"  of what he or she will want in the future.

Today, there are scientists who believe that quantum mechanics is necessary to understand the mind - that the synapses in our brains are so small that quantum effects are significant, and allow for the possibility of the interaction of mind and matter.

That gives a whole new significance to retailers' claims of wanting to  "get inside consumers' heads."

I have more to say, but I have to go. I think there's a sock stuck in my left frontal lobe.

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